Assessing the Status of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights during the Aquino Administration

by Dr. Nestor T. Castro

The protection of indigenous peoples’ rights was not given priority during the entire term of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III.  Indigenous peoples’ concerns were never mentioned in President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2010 to 2012 and only barely mentioned during the SONA of 2013 to 2015.  In the 2013 SONA, President Aquino mentioned that the data for the PhilHealth coverage for indigenous peoples are still inaccessible.  In the 2014 and 2015 SONA, indigenous peoples (IPs) were mentioned as among the beneficiaries of the Department of Education’s Alternative Learning System (ALS).  

This lack of mention on IPs during the several SONA is reflective of the Administration’s dismal record in addressing IP issues and concerns.  As of December 2010, only 156 Certificates of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) have been awarded out of the 248 ancestral domain claims.  Moreover, only 37 out of the 156 CADTs have actually been registered with the Registry of Deeds.  While the processing and issuance of ancestral domain titles has been slow, there has been a fast-tracking of issuances of Compliance Certificates for Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) for big corporations exploiting the natural resources found in IP territories.  53% of the 309 Compliance Certificates were for mining projects, 20% for forestry and agro-industrial projects, 12% for dam projects, and 8% for transmission line projects.

Even those that were already awarded with CADTs and CALTs (Certificate of Ancestral Land Titles) faced threats of cancellation of their titles.  In 2012, a civil case was filed with the Aklan Regional Trial Court to cancel the 2.1 hectare CADT awarded to the Ati because the domain allegedly overlapped with a private property.  In 2014, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) nullified two CALTs in Baguio City because certain documents supporting the CADT issuance were allegedly missing in the NCIP’s office. 

The more important question to ask is whether the lives of IPs in the Philippines have actually improved during the period of the Aquino Administration.  The resounding answer is No.  An internal World Bank reports cites that barangays inhabited by indigenous peoples are 28% poorer than those barangays without IPs.  The per capita food expenditures of households within barangays inhabited by IPs are 38% lower than those in barangays without IPs.  

Based on statistical analysis, the larger the percentage of IPs in a particular barangay, there is a higher likelihood that the household head has never attended school.  The school participation rate of IPs is 12.7% lower than those of non-IPs. 

Unfortunately, there are no available health statistics on IP areas.  However, we know that the per capita health expenditures in IP areas are 10% lower than those in non-IP areas.  This may imply that there are less health services in the former as compared to the latter. 

Since 53% of FPIC Compliance Certificates were issued for mining projects, let us look at the impact of mining on the IPs.  Mining is a double-edged sword.  On one hand, mining projects bring about community benefits, such as the construction of roads, schools, and health centers.  In accordance with the Philippine Mining Act, 1% of the gross output of mining is paid as royalty to IPs for mining projects in ancestral domains.  On the other hand, mining is viewed by many IPs as a threat to their livelihood, food security, culture, and their very existence.  Several adverse environmental impacts have been identified as being brought about by mining, e.g. on crops, fishing, water pollution, and health.  Mining is also being blamed for problems of deforestation and landslides.  Indigenous communities have also become divided because of polarization between pro-mining and anti-mining groups.  There have also been accusations that the NCIP has created fake “tribal councils” so as to facilitate the entry of mining projects.

Recent events have revealed that mining and other government-endorsed projects in IP areas has resulted to the militarization of these areas.  According to Katribu, there were 73 extrajudicial killings of IPs during the Aquino Administration.  57 of these incidents involved the killing of Lumads in Mindanao.  Most of these killings happened in 2015.  Militarization has also brought about the displacement of IPs from their territories.  In September 2015, there were 2,700 Lumadad evacuees in Tandag, Surigao del Sur.  They trooped to Tandag in order to escape military operations that were on-going in 19 Lumad communities.  The military activities also led to the closure of nine tribal schools, thus affecting 676 students and 47 teachers.  Ironically, these tribal schools fall within the category of Alternative Learning Systems that was mentioned by President Aquino during 2014 and 2015 SONA. 

The Philippines prides in with having an Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) that aims to protect the rights of IPs.  However, the empirical data shows that IPRA is only good in paper but has failed to protect IPs from oppression and exploitation.  This is evidenced by cases of dissension within IP communities, heightened inter-ethnic conflicts in once relatively harmonious multi-ethnic communities, and the nurturing of a culture of dependence on the government and the private sector.  It is important to bring back the implementation of IPRA to its original focus and intent. 

This essay was drawn from the lecture delivered by the author at the Third World Studies Public Forum Series on February 18, 2016, at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.